Highlight a Woman: Dr. Latanya Sweeney

by Anitra Cottledge

To steal a phrase from Brenda, normally, the “highlight a woman” post features a female student affairs professional. Unfortunately, I couldn’t immediately think of student affairs women outside of my co-bloggers who are focused on/passionate about technology.

But today, luck would have it, I came across this lecture by Dr. Latanya Sweeney, and it seemed apropos to highlight a woman, while not in student affairs, who works in higher education. And frankly, Dr. Sweeney had me at “digital privacy.”

SweeneyDr. Sweeney is the director and founder of the Data Privacy Lab at Harvard University. A brief highlighting of her accomplishments, in her own words:

Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science, Technology and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and an elected fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics, with almost 100 academic publications, 2 patents, citations in the Federal Register for 2 regulations, and 3 company spin-offs. I have received professional and academic awards, and testified before federal and international government bodies. In 2009, through a national GAO search, I was appointed to the privacy and security seat of the Federal Health Information Technology Policy Committee.

Amazing. In 2000, Sweeney debunked assumptions of anonymity when she “analyzed data from the 1990 census and revealed that, surprisingly, 87 percent of the U.S. population could be identified by just a ZIP code, date of birth, and gender.”

Please take a moment to wrap your head around that statistic. True, Dr. Sweeney’s focus is that of a computer scientist, or as she would say, “computer (cross) policy” scientist. My lens, much like yours, may be different. Your frame of reference for these issues could be educational uses of technology, social media, or the law, just to name a few. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that issues of data, privacy and the digital landscapes in which we all live and work are issues that extend well beyond student affairs and beyond higher education.

Dr. Sweeney’s mission? “The goal is to allow society to reap the benefits of emerging technologies while enjoying privacy protection.”

I think that many different people share this goal, and the potential for interdisciplinary work in this arena is huge and exciting. It’s fascinating to see the approaches that diverse groups of people take towards this and similar goals.

And if you aren’t sold yet, Dr. Sweeney writes poems, rides motorcycles, and one of her favorite quotes also happens to be one of my favorite quotes by the indomitable Audre Lorde: “When I dare to be powerful -to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

I’m so excited that I stumbled across this amazing woman and her work! Who are some other women who are doing incredible work in technology?

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